It started even before our eyes had dried. Pretty much from the opening whistle. The answer to the question we had all been asking ever since John Herdman’s Canada qualified for the World Cup on that wonderful night at BMO Field against Jamaica: Can our boys hang with the elite of world football?
On that night in Doha at least, the answer teased us at first, and then forced its way into our northern sports narrative: Damn right, we can.
Herdman told his band of brothers just that post-match, in one of those team huddles that every upstart side that needs to punch above its weight finds itself in at some point, usually with the cameras rolling.
Ok, the exact term he used was “we belong” but you get the idea.
For 90 minutes on Wednesday night, Canada went at the second-ranked side in world football. If there were nerves — and I’m sure there were — they weren’t on display. There was Richie Laryea seemingly covering every inch of the pitch at the Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium. Kamal Miller announcing himself on the world stage with some breathtaking challenges. And Jonathan David’s hips reminding us of a young Eden Hazard, who, on the other side, seemed to turn back the clock. It was the great Atiba Hutchinson, controlling play for 55 minutes before handing the torch — sorry, I mean the midfield — to Ismael Kone.
Of course, it wasn’t perfect. And as we grow up as a football nation, it’s important that we analyze with balance. Alphonso Davies probably should have left the penalty-taking duties to David, and in truth the ‘face of the franchise’ didn’t have his best match in a Canadian shirt. The set pieces were poor, and if I never see another ball over the top catch the centre-backs by surprise, it’ll be too soon!
Yet, here we are relatively comfortable in the knowledge that despite a supposed weak Concacaf, Canada can play its preferred brand against any nation no matter the name or location.
The Belgium media will not view that performance well, despite the win. They will criticize Roberto Martinez’s team, accusing them of taking Canada too lightly and reinforcing the belief that the window to win something has closed for Belgium. And in truth, as we have seen in technicolor over the last couple of days, the first match can be a stumbling block for the favoured nations. Yet Canada made it difficult for them and showed no fear. They didn’t care that Kevin De Bruyne is the best midfielder in the world, or that Thibault Courtois thinks that he should have won the Ballon d’Or.
The result, given our development as a nation, is really irrelevant compared to the performance. Unfortunately, this is the World Cup and points are kind of important. However, if six months ago you told any of those Voyageurs in the stands who did themselves so proud this night in Qatar, that a narrow 1-0 loss to Belgium in a match Les Rouges deserved to win would welcome Canada back to the big stage, they would happily have taken it.
Come Sunday against Croatia however, a win is all that matters. Canada’s time as a nice little story can begin coming to an end, as expectations will rise, pressure will build, and we can start taking the sport seriously on these shores.
Right now, though? Let’s just enjoy our return to the World Cup.